Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Settlement Labeling A Wake Up Call To Bibi

Today's decision by the European Union to label products from West Bank settlements is both unfair and hypocritical. The decision singles out Israel while ignoring other ongoing settlement in the region, most prominently Turkey's decades-long settlement project in Northern Cyprus. The EU calls this project an "internal matter" yet has no problem interfering in Israel's conflict with Palestinians.

At the same time, Israel's government has completely failed in its reaction to increasing isolation in the international system. Isolation isn't (entirely) Israel's fault, but it is Israel's problem. Yet Israel's policy reaction to today's decision shows how ill-equipped the Netanyahu government really is to address isolation as a political threat.

In response to the EU's decision, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called settlement labeling anti-Semitic. Liberman went so far as to make reference to Holocaust imagery of Jews wearing yellow stars. These assertions are without merit. People are not vegetables, and settlements are not Jewish. Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reacted somewhat more reasonably, saying the EU should be "ashamed of itself" and pointing out that the labeling comes as Jews in Israel are being stabbed in the streets.

Both of these statements play well with a frightened Israel domestic public and Jewish diaspora. But neither solve the problem. In fact, they make it worse.

International isolation is a major threat to Israel. The labeling initiative is the latest in a series of moves to make Israel a pariah in the community of liberal states. To weather this storm, Israel must convince a critical mass of the international public that it is a member of the community. This goal should not be impossible to achieve. Israel has a stronger democracy than any other country in the Middle East, extensive economic and political ties to liberal states, and an open discourse on the ways in which it falls short at protecting liberal values. It can't convince everyone, but Israel can convince enough people to mitigate the threat isolation poses.

Yet for all its speeches and antics, the Netanyahu government has shown total incompetence at actually addressing the problem. Rather than try to mitigate isolation, the Prime Minister has appointed a UN ambassador who has no place in a diplomatic setting, and an English spokesman who thinks the President of the United States is anti-Semitic. Rather than frame Israel as a member of the community of nations in his UN speeches, Netanyahu castigates it. Rather than downplaying settlement labelling by calling it a "disappointing move that casts a shadow on Israel's strong historic relationship with its European friends," the Netanyahu government's statements only strengthen the growing attempt to "other" Israel. The reaction is strong - and plays right into the hands of those seeking to frame Israel in ways that harm it.

More importantly, today's decision will not be the last time Israel faces isolating attacks over its settlement policy. Over the long term, isolation can be stopped only by demonstrating a credible commitment toward reducing settlement growth and pursuing a sustainable alternative to the status quo. Settlement labeling is smoking gun evidence that conflict management will not work. The status quo cannot be maintained - it is getting consistently worse. And the Netanyahu government's reactionary tactics are exacerbating the very threats it should be trying to prevent.


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